Winner of the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Slow West is a quirky adventure set in Colorado in the second half of the 19th century.
It tells the story of 16-year-old aristocrat Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who journeys from Scotland across the American Frontier in search of the woman he loves. The terrain he travels across is wild and wooly, even though it looks spectacular; it is populated by thieves, scoundrels and murdering gangs. The West has no pity, least of all on the innocent. Jay is full of bravado, but is wet behind the ears. So it is that he has a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger named Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), who promises protection for a price. To provide a bit more background, Jay has grown up in the Scottish Highlands with Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), a humble farmer’s daughter. As they mature, friendship grows into something deeper on Jay’s part. When her father (Rory McCann) has to flee to America after a tragedy, Rose is suddenly torn from Jay’s life. Heartbroken, Jay turns his back on his privileged life and sets off to find Rose and win her heart.
The monosyllabic frontiersman Silas seems to have an agenda of his own as he accompanies the naive, lovelorn Jay across the beautiful but threatening landscape. Among those on the trail is an intimidating posse of outlaws led by Payne (Ben Mendelsohn).
Slow West is an unconventional western-cum-unrequited love story (think Romeo and Juliet) and coming of age tale. It marks the feature debut of John Maclean, BAFTA award-winning director of the short film Pitch Black Heist, which also starred Michael Fassbender. Backing comes from the British Film Institute and the New Zealand Film Commission, among others.
In avoiding many of the western cliches, Maclean was more interested in surrealism and fairy tales, and putting that into his screenplay, so it read like a European road movie. But like all good westerns, there is climbing body count and, in this case, the story unfolds partly through flashback to Jay’s youth. He is an intriguing fish out of water; but make no mistake, this is a young man driven to succeed.
Maclean has brought a breath of fresh air to the genre, a unique and intriguing perspective, which may not suit all comers, but screams originality. The juxtaposition of so many different ideas and film types could have ended up as an indigestible blancmange but for me it developed into a tasty meal. Importantly, Slow West has the ability to surprise and is not afraid to do so.
The cinematography of Irishman Robbie Ryan (Philomena) is a feature. The entire film was shot in New Zealand. So, there is much to commend about it and the style of John Maclean.
Rated M, Slow West scores an 8 out of 10.
Director: John Maclean
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ben Mendelsohn
Release Date: 4 June 2015
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television